267. Pearl, by the Pearl Poet (c.1390)

A grieving father falls asleep in the garden where his little daughter Pearl passed away, and dreams of meeting her in Paradise, separated from her by a stream he cannot cross. She is older and a ‘bride’ of Christ, one of a host of souls residing in bliss.

My version was the acclaimed translation of Simon Armitage, published by Faber & Faber, 2016.

Thoughts : Again the familiar device of a dream vision is used in this poem; and while alliteration is present, it is to a noticeably lesser degree than previous reads. What is new is that each chapter of stanzas has an internal repetition of a key word or image in the first and last lines of each stanza.

When the poem opens, it seems that the poet has merely dropped and lost a pearl, then we realize the grief is too deep – it is more like the grief of a loved one than an object. But the comparison is really about the innocence and purity of the girl symbolised in her name and her attire of pearls, and reflects how she and everyone can choose to love Christ and attain Paradise.

The wording and imagery seems more delicate than other similar surviving poems which makes me wonder if the poet had lost a child and part of writing this is a process of consolation.

Favourite quotes/scenes:

There are some nice phrasings.

His description of his daughter when alive:

“the one that drove away sorrow, lightened my load, roused my spirits and rallied my health”   stanza 2, lines 3-5

the beauty of the dream forest and the stream

“the bed was studded with brilliant stones, glinting and glowing like light through glass, as radiance streams from distant stars in the winter sky while the world sleeps”   stanza 10, lines 5-8

how the city of New Jerusalem (Paradise) outshines even the moon, which

“… cannot practise her powers in that place, she is pockmarked and pitted and impure in person. Added to which, it is never night-time. How could the moon, casting her moonbeams from celestial circuits, hope to compete with the light that sheens off that stream’s surface?”     stanza 90, lines 1-6

but for me, as a father myself, the scene I can best enjoy is the poet’s sheer joy in seeing his daughter happy and loved in her new existence.

“Then looking, I saw there my little queen, who I thought was standing on the shore of this stream. Lord, how happy and at peace she appeared, so pure and content among her companions. And instantly I wanted to wade that water, longing for her, the delight of my life”  stanza 96, lines 7-12

Personal rating:  It was always going to be a hard task following up after Gawain.   Only a 3/10 today.

Meanwhile in the 1390s:

  • Charles VI of France suffers his first spell of insanity 1392, attacking his own knights and killing several before he could be stopped.
  • Mongol leader Timur captures Baghdad and overruns Mesopotamia, 1393. Ottomans, Tatars (not Tartars) and Mamluks form an alliance against him, 1394. The Mongol Empire collapses into smaller units, and the Ottomans go on to invade Hungary, blockade Constantinople, 1395, and defeat Western European crusaders in Bulgaria, 1396.
  • Richard II of England banishes his cousin Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk ,1398. Henry’s father, John of Gaunt dies 1399, and Richard confiscates the estate. Henry invades to contend for the crown.

from The Book of Key Facts, published Paddington Press, 1978.

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